6.5.4 Other Material Culture

Artefacts of the period have significant potential to increase understanding of life at all levels of society. The majority of finds are not chronologically diagnostic, however, and require other dating evidence. For example, rotary querns and iron knives appear in nearly all settlements from the period. At Dundurn, the unusual nature of certain finds, including a knife with angled blade and a finely-shaped and polished schist whetstone, allowed them to be dated to the 9th century. This was also supported by their stratigraphic position at the end of the occupation layers (Alcock et al 1989, 217–8). Examples of 7th- to 9th-century knives can also now be related to well-dated occupation layers at Lair, Glen Shee (MPK4456 and MPK4384; Strachan et al 2019) and the King’s Seat, Dunkeld (MPK5444; Strachan and MacIver forthcoming).

Rare evidence of iron dress pins and buckles from Lair (MPK4456 and MPK4384; Strachan et al 2019, 94–6) may indicate dress styles associated with a well-to-do farmer class. These provide an important counterpoint to the copper-alloy, silver and gold dress fasteners being manufactured and worn at hillforts like Dundurn. The recovery of an iron buckle (Perth Museum 2003.21.3) from the 10th-century palisaded enclosure site at Upper Gothens (MPK5496; Clydesdale 2001; Photo-Jones 2001) in the mid-Tay valley zone, near Meikleour extends the distribution of non-precious metalwork dress fittings further. Additional examples include the metal-detected discoveries of dress pins from Redgorton (MPK19620; copper alloy; Perth Museum accession 2016.62) and Pitlochry (silver; Perth Museum accession 2018.98). The Upper Gothens buckle was surface treated by tinning to imitate the look of higher-status silver items. Iron survives much worse in the archaeological record than other metals but the discovery of the iron axe-headed pin at Rhynie (Noble 2017; Campbell et al 2020) suggests there may be a level of material we are as yet missing in Perth and Kinross.

Occupants of both Dundurn and Lair had valuables that needed protection, as indicated by the iron barrel padlocks found there (Strachan et al 2019, 91–3).

Illustration of finds from Dundurn, including a padlock (7) ©️ Leslie Alcock

Unique in an early medieval context from Scotland is the silvered copper-alloy strap dangler from Dundurn (Alcock 1980, 345–7; Alcock et al 1989, 217). Its animalistic decoration has affinities with Anglo-Saxon art, and helps to confirm the 7th-century date assigned to it. It provides evidence of elite and middle-ranking contacts across Insular Britain, as shown by the 6th-century harness pendant from South Leckaway, near Forfar, Angus (Dickinson et al 2006). Recent finds of metalwork through the Scottish Treasure Trove system confirm and extend – in both space and time – such linkages. Early medieval strap ends of Anglo-Saxon type have been metal-detected from Logierait (copper alloy) and from Stanley (silver), possibly suggesting transit up and down the Tay valley. The Logierait example is of the type that was probably being made in Anglian Scotland (Thomas 2000, 238). Both can be broadly dated to the 8th–9th century.

The portability and reuse of objects is both a challenge and an opportunity for understanding the period. For example, we know that stone could be transported considerable distances; Roman masonry was reused in the construction of the forts at Dundurn and Inchtuthil (MPK3644) (Alcock et al 1989, 203; RCAHMS 1994, 52–5). A rough out for a quern was used as the upright closer of the foot end of a long cist at Blair Atholl, dated AD 400–600 (MPK1168; Czére et al 2021). A complete rotary quern, upper and lower stones, was also found in a long cist in Pitlochry Golf Course (MPK1624; Mitchell 1921, 27). It is only presumed that these were objects contemporary with the burial contexts in which they were found. Excavations at monumental roundhouses, which appear to be of later Iron Age constructions, have also revealed finds from later periods that suggest reoccupation  (Strachan 2013, 36, 107). The portability of objects as a part of their function (eg reliquaries) has received some initial consideration (Hall 2007a) but needs further analysis, not least in the light of new finds such as discussed above.

The remarkable conical glass stud with bosses of blue and white spirals from Dundurn (Hunterian Museum GLAHM:138398) was the only one of its kind from Britain until a similar example recently excavated from Lindisfarne was identified by Hall (Alcock et al 1989; Pina-Dacier 2020). Alcock was inclined to see this as a decorative boss but more recently Hall (2007) has suggested that they are gaming pieces. The basal socket exhibited by both this and the Lindisfarne piece were probably to hold a peg with a pointed terminal that would have been used with a peg-hole gaming board, most probably of wood.  Without other pieces from their respective sets, it is impossible to know whether they are pawns or king pieces, but certainly they are fine enough to be the latter, in Insular variants of tafl-type board games (Hall 2007; Hall and Forsyth 2011). Their biographical complexity within traditions of Roman and Irish glass-making and use is the subject of a forthcoming paper (Graham-Campbell et al forthcoming). The introduction of board games to Britain has been linked to Roman policies (Hall and Forsyth 2011). Gaming pieces and boards are known from several Roman forts (Bertha, Inchtuthil and Strageath) and there is a slate board fragment from the Newmill, Bankfoot souterrain (MPK2309; Watkins 1978–80, 190–1). However, we have yet to find much indigenous evidence of early medieval gaming from Perth and Kinross with the notable exception of Dundurn. Such material offers insights into leisure activities at all social levels, though it is often seen as an elite privilege, given the luxuriousness of artefacts like the Dundurn piece.

Conical glass gaming piece from Dundurn ©️ University of Glasgow